Mormon Media Observer: Looking for American tolerance

Published: Monday, Jan. 21 2008 12:55 a.m. MST

In January, 1987, my wife and I were working in staff positions in the U.S. Senate in Washington D.C. when we attended a service at the Washington National Cathedral to commemorate the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Amid the grandeur of the gothic architecture, the voices of a choir echoed and attendees listened to the interfaith readings that represented the universal goodness and equality of humankind. A rabbi read from the Torah, an imam from the Koran, a pastor from the New Testament and an LDS leader from The Book of Mormon. As idealistic college students, it was an image and an associated feeling of peace we remembered as a model for a tolerant America. It was an America to which we felt included.

Fast-forward to 2008. In many quarters my faith is under attack as Americans consider a Mormon for president, and I wonder about that inclusion. One recent author said he felt marginalized if Mitt Romney is denied the presidency simply — or primarily — because of his faith. Another has explained that it seems like it is open season on Mormons.

The LDS rhetorical landscape today is filled with mean-spirited words. Words like cult, un-Christian, weird and racist grate on anyones inclination toward civility and tolerance. However, many LDS members take it in stride, a recent AP story shows.

Along with the oft-referenced polls that say many would not vote for a Mormon president, there is a more troubling misunderstanding about religious freedom in the United States. Just 56 percent of Americans believe that the freedom to worship as one chooses extends to all religious groups, regardless of how extreme down 16 points, from 72 percent in 2000, according to the State of the First Amendment 2007 report released in September 2007. Americans seem to have a problem with religious tolerance and a basic understanding of the religious freedom clause of the First Amendment.

And it seems to persist in the Mitt Romney campaign. Three political science professors argue that saying Romney is flip-flopping is merely a cover for anti-Mormon sentiment (see also here.)

In the context of the intolerance of the presidential campaign, Ive been yearning for that feeling I had that evening 21 years ago in the marbled sanctuary in Washington. I think I found some of that in a recent review of media opinion (please note that the review here centers on opinion writing which is expected to have a bias rather than news reporting which is expected to be balanced).

For example, consider the recent work of Denver Post columnist Gail Schoettler and Chloe Oliver in the Hattiesburg (Miss.) American. Schoettler said that the media needs to get past the trivial in the coverage of presidential politics, while Oliver reminds readers that those who propose to save us from a monster must be careful as they employ their tactics. Otherwise, they may become the monster they seek.

Its heartening that religious writers have expressed similar sentiment. Although it didnt get much traction among Mormons at the time it was published in December, I stumbled upon this column by Abraham H. Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League.

Foxman wrote: As we said during the 2000 campaign with regard to Senator Lieberman, candidates should feel comfortable explaining their religious convictions to voters. At the same time, however, we believe there is a point at which an emphasis on religion in a political campaign becomes inappropriate and even unsettling in a religiously diverse society such as ours. Anyone who legitimately aspires to the presidency of the United States must be prepared to set an example and be a leader for all Americans, of all faiths and of no faith.

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